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Everipody's Talkin' At Me

Andrew Sullivan, writing about the iPod world in the Sunday Times, opened his piece with this: "I was visiting New York last week and noticed something I'd never thought I'd say about the city. Yes, nightlife is pretty much dead (and I'm in no way the first to notice that)." His piece expressed concerns that "Americans are beginning to narrow their lives." Said Sullivan, "You get your news from your favourite blogs, the ones that won't challenge your view of the world. You tune into a satellite radio service that also aims directly at a small market – for new age fanatics, liberal talk or Christian rock. Television is all cable. Culture is all subculture. Your cell phones can receive e-mail feeds of your favourite blogger's latest thoughts – seconds after he has posted them – get sports scores for your team or stock quotes of your portfolio." The result is an increasing isolationism.

Robert Putnam analyzed our country's "bleak picture of social isolation and civic disengagement" in Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000). Putnam pointed to lots of potential culprits: divorce, big government programs that destroyed old neighborhoods and fulfilled charitable needs traditionally met by local civic organizations, American rugged individualism gone wild, and, of course, the great new home entertainment devices that simply weren't available to the earlier generations that joined 35-week bowling leagues.

A reader of Sullivan's blog wrote to him, saying "Since our society is being eaten away by isolationism, how do we get people back from behind their iPods into society? How do we get the boys back into the bars? In a country where we do not have strong social traditions, where do you go to reintroduce cultural socialization? In Italy, they walk in the evenings; In Germany, they gather at beergardens; In France, cafes."

It's a fair question, but it's phrased wrongly. What can "we" do? Really, nothing. Just as a spiritual regeneration must take place one soul at a time, a social regeneration must, too. It's somewhat ironic, since "social" requires more than one, but it's true. You can't make someone worship and you can't make someone come to your party. But you, individually, can go to your local bar and meet acquaintances for a drink even though the Internet or Sex in the City are beckoning you to cross the domestic moat for the evening.

That might, incidentally, be all it takes: a willingness to stop off at a bar occasionally for a drink. If many people did that, maybe the yarn of society would start meshing together and something better would be knitted from it. It beats all the individualistic strands lying around in a heap today.

Just a few drinks at the bar. In what other era has civic mindedness made such an easy and enjoyable request?